Saturday, February 19, 2011

Three Cheers for England

You can probably tell from this blog that I’m a Grecophile. But, I’m also an Anglophile. Both countries were essential to the development of logic, philosophy, critical reasoning and science, not to mention political freedom. And, while I'm at it, also not to mention – America.

But, like with Ancient Greece, the amount of time I indulge myself in learning about England or Britain is not proportionally reflected in this blog. I wrote a post on Churchill (Move over Einstein -- The man of the century is . . . 5/9/07) and one on an interesting murder (The Strange Case of Edward Bellingham - 4/28/08). But, can I even count the four on Tolkien (7/17/07, 4/10/08, 5/14/09, 2/21/10)? Yes and no.

Recently, I saw a discussion forum on Amazon asking what are the best books to learn about Britain. I recommended:

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain
Le Mort D’Arthur (these first two are hardly real history, but critical to understanding Britain)
Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples
Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell
Catherine Drinker Bowen’s The Lion and The Throne
Then, Churchill’s History of the Second World War
I didn’t write it on Amazon, but I’ll add here The Ultra Secret. With WWII, ends the long heroic age of Britain.

But, no book reports here (rare, anyway). I’m heading towards the ten greatest events in British history and, no surprise, they are all about liberty. I hope it is a little different than you've seen elsewhere, if at all. Hang on to your bowlers, gentle folk:

10. Common, but great. Ah, King Alfred, how little are ye celebrated now in lands settled by your descendants. Born royal, Alfred the Great long fought the Danish Vikings, eventually defeating, at least for the time being, forcing them to surrender and their leaders to accept Christianity. He was a scholar, as well as a military man, translating many Latin works into Anglo-Saxon himself. He has been credited with creating England as we know it, and it might not be overstatement. It is easy to be cynical about very old history, but as far as we can tell, the King was a pious Christian and a very good man, writing, “My will was to live worthily as long as I lived; and after my life to leave to them to come after me, my memory in good works.” Better still is the epilogue of his anthology, Blossoms, mostly taken from St. Augustine’s Soliloquies (having bored myself silly with Augustine’s Confessions in my youth, I never attempted Soliloquies; it might be better than I fear): “He seems to me a very foolish man and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the World – and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.”

But, his greatest achievement was his code of laws, or Doom Book (meaning “Judgment Book”) , created from previous codes of Wessex, Kent and Mercia and from the old and new testaments. Fortunately, the golden rule was part of it. Following Leviticus, he wrote, “Doom very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!” His code was the basis for our common law, ever after in England and then in America, supplemented by Magna Carta, our own constitution, and a gazillion other statutes. But, still, a foundation of our freedom, which gives our lives such joy.

9. The best defense isn’t always a great offense. A few years ago, at the U.N., after a French diplomat bragged about his country being a great nation founded by the French people, a British diplomat joked that they were also a great nation founded by the French people. And, in large part it was true, 1066 being one of the most famous years in history, when Britain was successfully invaded for the second to last time (a Dutch army in 1688 was last). Of course, William the Conqueror claimed that he was entitled to the throne, in any event, but the French dominated England for many years and blended with the Anglo-Saxons (and others) to form the laws, culture and language we know as English or British.

There were actually four Kings of England that year. The first was Edward the Confessor, who barely made it into the year, dying on January 4th. Harold Godwinson was crowned King, and he, unlike his predecessor, was a warrior. But the Duke William of Normandy, Edward’s cousin once removed, claimed the throne as well, believing he was promised it by Edward and sworn fealty to by Harold, who had earlier fought alongside him. Actually, in England at the time, it was the Witenagemot, elderly nobles, who determined the king, and they selected Harold. He didn’t exactly get to enjoy it long as in September, while waiting on William's attack, he had to hurry north to defeat the Norwegian Harald Hardrada in league with his own brother, Tostig Godwinson, and then turn around and head south with a depleted army to fight William, who had already landed, a little over two weeks later near Hastings. He died there, as essentially did Anglo-Saxon rule, although the Witenagemot selected Edgar Æthelring (“Edgar the Exile”), another Edward the Confessor relative, as the new king. William defeated him too – Edgar fled - and was crowned king. It took about another 8 years to polish off the resistance, including Edgar who had fled to Scotland, but the Normans accomplished it (mostly done with William across the water in Normandy).

However, neither the invasion nor 1066 itself is my no. 9 choice, but a momentary decision or perhaps reaction in the battle of Hastings is. The English had no cavalry or bowmen (if any, few). The armed themselves like Homeric warriors with sharp clublike weapons, mostly axe and sword. And like later Greeks, they defended themselves by making a shield wall, which was a good defense against the short range bow and arrow and also cavalry, which could not penetrate the strong wall without room to maneuver within it.

After a long battle where the wall held, the left of the invaders broke and fled downhill, and others on William’s side, sensing disaster, began to flee as well. Sometimes an army is criticized for not pursuing and routing their foe, but, this is where the English made their mistake. Their equipment and strategy worked well on defense, but not well in the open field upon a calvary. William’s own horse itself was felled and it was thought William was dead. But, he rose and threw off his helmet, and rallied his troops. There’s my big moment, although perhaps, like much history, apocryphal. Without the shield wall, the English were vulnerable to the French cavalry. Also, by aiming their arrows over the shields into the rear, the invaders took a terrible toll on the defenders and perhaps then Harold received an arrow in the eye, as we are told. Perhaps he died otherwise, but dead he was. Harold’s two brothers were also slain and William regained the momentum. Slowly, the Norman cavalry found the room it needed to break up the shield wall and win the day. It is entirely possible the invasion would have faltered had the English maintained their position and not broken ranks. Indeed, perhaps Harold would have appended to his name “The Great,” as only Alfred had before him and none after.

8. A great charter, but mostly because of one part. Even I, the worst of school age students remember covering Magna Carta. Although something stirred inside me, I never read it or understood its value until I was an adult, despite the fact that individual liberty was an essential part of my personality - some might add "flaw". It was, of course, not intended to be a statement of the rights of the common man, but of free-men, not women, not serfs. However, it was restated again and again, and is undoubtedly a founding document in the bibliography of liberty.

It was forced upon King John of England, who signed it under threat of destruction. The most controversial part of the charter was its clause which permitted the barons, in sufficient number, to overrule the king. It was rescinded by him as soon as the barons, who now swore fealty again, left London. The Pope at the time also condemned it. John was dead a year later and not until a year after that was the term Magna used before Carta Libertatum - later just Magna Carta. It was not until 1225 that it really entered English law, although much changed.

Clause 39 of the original charter read as follows:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.”

Close to a hundred and fifty years later in one of several revisions, the phrase now read (as clause 29 now):

“No man of what state or condition he be, shall be put out of his lands or tenements nor taken, nor disinherited, nor put to death, without he be brought to answer by due process of law.”

When we formed our constitution, it was written that no person (among other rights) could “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” These words were placed into the 14th amendment, and then applied against the states themselves.

It would not be possible to here provide you with all the freedoms we now have which stem from those words in that useless charter agreed upon only by duress in 1215, but it is the basis of the reason you have a right to know the charges against you, to defend yourself, not to have a confession beaten out of you, and all of the rights we now have which are deemed fundamental. It cannot be given too great an importance.

7. Heroes or villains? I have never been quite sure what to make of Oliver Cromwell. Apparently, neither can the British, as when over there on my second trip, I made it a point to question a few history buffs about whether he was hero or villain. They were all quite frank – they weren’t sure. I recommended Fraser’s book on him for a reason. It is an indefatigably researched work and a classic.

The most dramatic part, in my mind, of the victory of Cromwell and the increase in parliamentary power (forgetting for the time, his own tyranny), was the trial of King Charles I, who the Parliament forces had defeated, where it was established that no man is above the law. Undoubtedly, Charles believed he had right on his side. Had not his own father, James, declared the absolute power of the king? No king of England, or probably any king anywhere else (have I missed someone?), had ever been tried before. They just murdered them. When asked to plea, he answered thus:

“I would know by what power I am called hither. . . . by what Authority, I mean, lawful; there are many unlawful Authorities in the world, Thieves and Robbers by the highways: but I would know by what Authority I was brought from thence, and carried from place to place, (and I know not what), and when I know what lawful Authority, I shall answer: Remember, I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the Judgment of God upon this Land, think well upon it, I say, think well upon it, before you go further from one sin to a greater; therefore let me know by what lawful Authority I am seated here, and I shall not be unwilling to answer, in the meantime I shall not betray my Trust: I have a Trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent, I will not betray it to answer a new unlawful Authority, therefore resolve me that, and you shall hear more of me. . . . I will stand as much for the privilege of the house of Commons, rightly understood, as any man here whatsoever. I see no House of Lords, here that may constitute a Parliament, and (the King too) should have been. Is this the bringing of the King to his Parliament? Is this the bringing an end to the Treaty in the public Faith of the world? Let me see a legal Authority warranted by the Word of God, the Scriptures, or warranted by the Constitutions of the Kingdom, and I will answer.”

To which the Lord President responded:

“Sir, you have held yourself, and let fall such Language, as if you had been no ways Subject to the Law, or that the Law had not been your Superior. Sir, The Court is very well sensible of it, and I hope so are all the understanding People of England, That the Law is your Superior, that you ought to have ruled according to the Law, you ought to have done so. Sir, I know very well your pretence hath been that you have done so, but Sir, the difference hath been who shall be the Expositors of this Law, Sir, whether you and your Party out of Courts of Justice shall take upon them to expound Law, or the Courts of Justice, who are the Expounders; nay, the Sovereign and the High Court of Justice, the PARLIAMENT of England, that are not only the highest expounders, but the sole makers of the Law. Sir, for you to set yourself with your single judgment, and those that adhere unto you, to set yourself against the highest Court of Justice, that is not Law.

Sir, as the Law is your Superior; so truly Sir, there is something that is Superior to the Law, and that is indeed the Parent or Author of the Law, and that is the People of England . . .

Sir, that road we are now upon by the command of the highest Courts hath been and is to try and judge you for these great offenses of yours. Sir, the Charge hath called you Tyrant, a Traitor, a Murderer, and a public Enemy to the Commonwealth of England. Sir, it had been well, if that any or all these terms might rightly and justly have been spared, if any one of them at all.”

To which the once powerful King responded:


6. A man and his hat. This trial is so delicious, I cannot pretend to do justice to it as a mere part of this post, but might return to it for a full discussion in due time. I’ve no doubt, if you are American, you have learned about William Penn, the founder of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But I rather doubt you have heard about his hat, which is the greatest part of his life story. You see, though the son of an admiral, he was a bit of a trouble maker, having fallen in with the Quakers, and outlawed sect which was persecuted by the crown.

In 1670 Penn and a “friend” were arrested and charged for going to a “meeting,” which is what Quakers called their services. Brought to court, the bailiffs removed their hats. However, the Mayor (one of those who sat on the bench with the recorder and aldermen) wanted to have a little fun with the Quakers, and had their hats put back on, which was a big mistake on his part. This is a mere scrap of what Penn put the court through:

Recorder: Do you know where you are?
Penn: Yes.
Recorder: Do you know it is the King’s court?
Penn: I know it to be a court, and I suppose it to be the King’s court.
Recorder: Do you know there is respect due to the court?
Penn: Yes.
Recorder: Why do you not pay it, then?
Penn: I do so.
Recorder: Why do you not put off your hat, then?
Penn: Because I do not believe that to be respect.
Recorder: Well, the court sets 40 marks apiece upon your heads, as a fine, for your contempt of the court.
Penn: I desire that it may be observed, that we came into the court with our hats off (that is, taken off), and if they have been put on since, it was by order from the bench; and therefore not we, but the bench, should be fined.

After the so-called trial, the jury was basically directed to find a guilty verdict. They came back with a mock verdict, finding them “guilty of speaking in Gracious Street,” without adding “. . . to an unlawful assembly. No matter how the bench threatened, they kept coming back with the same verdict. Penn protested, as he did throughout.

Penn: It is intolerable that my jury should thus be menaced; is this according to the fundamental law? Are not they not my proper judges by the Great Charter of England? What hope is there of ever having justice done when juries are threatened and their verdicts rejected?

Later, having had enough:

Mayor: Stop his mouth; jailor, bring fetters and stake him to the ground.
Penn: Do your pleasure, I matter not your fetters.
Recorder: Till now I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards, in suffering the Inquisition among them, and certainly it will never be well with us till something like the Spanish Inquisition be in England.
Penn: I know it to be a court, and I suppose it to be the King’s court.
Recorder: Do you know there is respect due to the court?
Penn: Yes.
Recorder: Why do you not pay it, then?
Penn: I do so.
Recorder: Why do you not put off your hat, then?

Two days and two nights without food and beds only brought the jury to make a finding of “Not guilty,” which in regular form, the court could not reject. But, he decided to fine the jury 40 marks each and to being imprisoned until paid. Penn demanded his own freedom:

Penn: I demand my liberty, being freed by the jury.
Mayor: No, you are in for your fines.
Penn: Fines for what?
Mayor: For contempt of the court.
Penn: I ask that if it be according to the fundamental laws of England, that any Englishman should be fined or amerced but by the judgment of his peers or jury . . . .
Recorder: Take him away, take him away; take him out the court.
Penn: I can never urge the fundamental laws of England but you cry, Take him away, take him away, but ‘tis no wonder, since the Spanish Inquisition has so great a place in the Recorder’s heart. God almighty, who is just, will judge you for all these things.

Again, this is but a small part of a trial where the court violated substantial rules, not even allowing Penn to know the charges or to put on a defense. The jury was later set free by a higher court, having courageously maintained their integrity. Against Penn’s wishes, his father, near death, paid the fine for his son and his friend. The trial is not the first example of what is called of jury nullification, but it did result in a ruling where courts were no longer permitted to punish jurors for coming to a result which displeased the bench.

Given my propensity for verbosity, I am making this a two parter, so that none might feel they'd rather be held prisoner without due process than finish it today.


  1. Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel. Excellent book on the first half of Cromwell's life, though it is "historical fiction". She puts words in people's mouths and attributes motives we can't definitively know, but it is a good read regardless.

  2. Oh, almost forgot, the best thing about the Brits is their cultural history. Hoist a hardy bird to their Kings and Queens. LeCarre,that Willy fellow...SHAKESPEARE, that's right. Donne, Johnson, Marvel, Herbert, Spenser, Mortimer,James, Marlowe, oh, wait, what's that other fellow's name... oh yeah, DARWIN. I could go on forever, but I don't have to, you'll do it for me.

  3. I heard good things about it, but I didn't know what it was about. Thanks for the info.

  4. Very... Nicee... Blog.. I really appreciate it... Thanks..:-)


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .